What's the secret of your successful partnership?
Courtesy of Philippa Marrack
We're interested in the same intellectual puzzles. [The T cell is] real interesting; it usually does the opposite of what you think it should do. We have a shared passion for this, understanding how this cell works.
Have your first impressions of the United States changed?
When I came here, my first impression was that everybody, including the guy pumping gas, believed that life had possibilities. I came from class-ridden England, and I arrived in a place where it looked like everybody could do something with their lives. Nobody in England believes they can get anything done, at least [it was like that] then.
I think people still believe they can get things done, but they also think they can manage other people, when they should be managing themselves. I don't like this bullying, 'we-know-best' approach to managing the...
What bores you?
Not the science, [though] sometimes it's disappointing. Boring has to do with lots of everyday things – letters of recommendation, reviewing papers, going to a faculty meeting of this, that or another description, the endless regulations on how to deal with a mouse....
What is stressful for you?
There are two things: There's far too much to do to fit in 24 hours; and the moment when I switch from one task to another. I am very happy to do this thing, stretching my mind, and [then] having to move, you have to pick up your brain and move it somewhere else.
Do you always have a working hypothesis in the lab?
[Mostly]. But 10% of the time... you notice that when you do the experiment, something funny has happened. And then you discover something you didn't know. That 10%, that's the best. [Science fiction writer Isaac] Asimov said it well, the sound of discovery is not 'eureka', it's 'that's funny.' He's exactly right.
What are your outside interests?
Playing the piano and running with the dog.
What are you playing now?
Bach. I am not very good, but I still like to do it.
Why do so many scientists play musical instruments?
There is some kind of satisfaction in the whole way music works out. Biology is logical too in the end, [though] we may not see the logic. Music has this added thing, and science too, which is passion.
You've said Alan Munro, your thesis adviser, "seduced" you into working on T cells at his lab. What was the deciding factor?
He was better looking than the other guy. I can't remember his name.... I was going to study small unicellular organisms, like the amoeba.... I was making the wrong decision.
What's the next step in dealing with autoimmune diseases?
We still don't know why people become autoimmune. More mature studies of human genetics will deal with [this question]. We have hints from animals about what genes are involved, now we want to go into families, to see what genes they share, and what ones they don't.
Name your favorite papers
Until the early 1980s, we didn't know how T cells recognized a foreign body. We did a beautiful and elegant experiment to show how the T cells see the infection, and a piece of the host at the same time; they use one receptor to recognize both simultaneously. It was kind of a surprise. That is the one we are probably most proud of.1 Then, we found the actual protein that was the receptor.2 We tried to do it by making no presumptions at all. After that, we showed how the immune system can recognize antigen, but not self.3
Christine Bahls can be reached at